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Is overt audience manipulation ever a viable substitute for theater? August Strindberg's The Father, now playing at the American Repertory Theater (ART), has as its principal goal the creation of misogynist emotion, and here it succeeds brilliantly. But ultimately the play's narrow ambitions undercut its achievements, and the constant insistence on negative character definition leaves us wondering whether any lesson other than hatred has been learned.
Set in the study of an eccentric Swedish army captain (Christopher Lloyd), The Father examines the struggle between this officer and his wife Laura (Candy Buckley) over the education of their only child, Bertha. The Captain insists that Bertha leave home and begin employment as a teacher, while Laura is adamant that the child remain at home under her tutelage. As the play progresses, this conflict becomes representative of a larger power struggle between husband and wife, and, by extension, between all men and women.
It is interesting to note that The Father marks the last of Strindberg's "antiwoman" plays, and his later works feature more sympathetic female protagonists. But this play makes no attempt to sympathize with, or even understand, Laura's position. Instead, she is portrayed as the incarnation of spite, a malignant crone whose sole goal is the destruction of her husband's authority and sanity.
Buckley projects her character's hatred with finesse, whether performing a mocking obeisance when The Captain doles out her weekly allowance or subtly challenging his sovereignty by repeating every question he asks her.
Unfortunately, Buckley's effective performance serves mainly to turn the audience against her. When Laura, scoffing at her husband's insecurities, proclaims, "I've never been able to look at a man without feeling superior," we are as convinced by the sincerity of her words as we are repelled by their substance.
In Strindberg's hands, the ultimate triumph of the wife over her husband is not an assertion of female independence but rather the bitter victory of a twisted spirit. The Father does not treat Laura's story as an exceptional one. The Captain, like the audience, sees his wife as a representative of all women, and cries, "To hell with hags!"
The ART's production of The Father does have its moments, and a good portion of them are provided by Lloyd, whose ferocious performance carries the show. Lloyd's voice is as harsh as his haircut, and his forceful gestures skillfully evoke the image of a man equally accustomed to giving orders at home and on the battlefield.
The Captain's uncompromising manner is not without its consequences, and as the play progresses Lloyd makes the audience realize that his character's refusal to bargain leaves The Captain with few options in the struggle against his wife.
Lloyd's superior acting abilities are confirmed in the second act. When his wife triumphs, he must abandon the veneer of harsh soldier and become a wimpering child. While within the play the transformation is abrupt and slightly unconvincing, Lloyd manages to maintain as much credibility playing an emotional ragdoll as he does portraying the assertive officer. Although The Captain's final speech is given within the confines of a straitjacket, Lloyd transcends these physical limitations and creates the play's most haunting moment.
Skillful stage designs and clever direction enhance the production. Derek McLane's set, painted the green of The Captain's uniform, provides a fitting backdrop for the war of the sexes. Crossed swords over every doorway evoke the marital tension within, and in the second act, an oddly shaped drawing room suggests the Captain's growing emotional instability. Director Robert Brustein emphasizes the gladitorial nature of the conflicts, rarely placing more than two characters of opposite gender on the stage at any one time.
Unfortunately, what emerges in this production of The Father is not so much conflict as calumny. Strindberg compellingly advances an absurd hypothesis: women seek nothing more than the destruction of their mates and the sole possession of their children. But he refuses to justify or even to attempt an explanation for their actions. We are left gaping at the damage women cause while remaining ignorant of the reasons for their blows.
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